‘I Won the Lottery!’ Now Back to Work

By Kathy Gurchiek Aug 26, 2013

Daydreaming about how winning a $10 million lottery would change their life doesn’t include quitting their job for many Americans. Seems loadin’ up the truck and movin’ to Beverly—Hills, that is—is “sooo old school” if you’re lucky enough to strike it rich today. A Gallup Poll found that two-thirds of respondents would keep working, although age factors into whether the newly rich would stay with their current employer:

  • 49 percent of workers 55 and older would keep their job if they won; 40 percent would quit; 10 percent would leave for a different employer.
  • 43 percent of workers ages 34-54 would keep their job; 33 percent would quit; 22 percent would leave for a different employer. 
  • 46 percent of workers ages 18-33 would keep their job; 36 percent would quit; 18 percent would leave for a different employer.

The findings are from telephone interviews that Gallup conducted Aug. 7-11, 2013, with 1,039 adults employed full time or part time. Respondents were 18 and older and lived in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

This desire to keep working is higher today than when Gallup conducted the survey from 1997 through 2005, according to the company’s news release about the results.

While it doesn’t know why this is so, the research organization suggested a few theories:

  • The value of $10 million may be less now than in the past, as most large winnings are heavily taxed, and, if taken as a lump sum, the winnings amount to even less than if received in smaller, annual amounts. 
  • Inflation also may have lessened the value that winners perceive $10 million is worth.
  • Americans’ sense of identity is wrapped up in their work, and they would miss the nonfinancial rewards that come with being employed.

That connection with work is certainly true for Russ Knight, regional vice president for First Sun Employee Assistance Program in Charlotte, N.C.

“I am already very able to retire and have chosen not to. I see meaning in my work. I have seen how my work really does help people and that gives me enjoyment,” he said in an informal LinkedIn poll.

“I feel very blessed to know I am working because I love my job so much. In the past I worked in jobs for the money only and I am grateful I do not ever have to do that again.”

Kari Hazzard, who handles HR analytics, benefits and compliance at Sears Roebuck and Co. in Rochester, N.Y., said in the same informal poll that she would “take the annuity option and continue working without having to worry about whether or not my bills are going to get paid.”

The Gallup findings may reflect the current bad economy and people’s feelings of financial insecurity, suggests Scott Highhouse, a psychology professor at Bowling Green State University (BGSU) in Kentucky.

Highhouse was the lead researcher and writer of the paper “Would You Work If You Won the Lottery? Tracking Changes in the American Work Ethic,” published in the Journal of Applied Psychology in 2010.

What he and his colleagues discovered was not much different from Gallup’s findings, Highhouse told SHRM Online.

The BGSU report was based on an updated database of 7,871 men and 7,549 women working full time whom the National Opinion Research Center surveyed from 1980 through 2006.

Like Gallup, the academics found that when the economy was shaky, people were more likely to think that, despite a windfall, they would hang on to their jobs because they felt less financially secure. And everyone’s heard horror stories of lottery winners sinking into bankruptcy and other problems a few short years after cashing in their lucky ticket.

“I'm sure most of us can blow through $10 million if we had nothing better to do on a daily basis,” Rob Gasperetti, HR director at Piping Rock Club in the Greater New York City area, noted in the LinkedIn poll.

But other, more existential factors may be involved when it’s no longer financially necessary to work, Highhouse suggested.

“I do think [the Gallup findings] reflects the degree to which people find meaning in work. Even our study found a majority of Americans would continue working if it were financially unnecessary,” he said. “Overall, I think it shows work provides meaning for people besides achieving financial goals.”

Kyle Jones, HR manager at MegaGate Broadland in Hattiesburg, Miss., concurs.

“I think it would be safe to assume that most of us would stay at our current job if we were happy and appreciated,” he commented in the LinkedIn discussion. “If this was not the case, then, while we might still work, a change might occur.”

Highhouse and his colleagues did find a slight drop over a nearly 30-year period in the number of people who said they’d keep working if they came into a large sum of money. One theory they suggest is that the attitude toward leisure and the moral consequences of idle hands has changed, not the American work ethic.

“Maybe [people feel] it’s not their moral duty to ignore leisure,” he said.

That may be especially true when it means the realization of a long-held dream after years of punching a time clock.

Susan Nickel, who will receive more than $3.5 million as one of 16 co-workers who won a Powerball Jackpot in August 2013, told a CBS News affiliate that she plans to continue working another year before retiring from her job as a county maintenance worker in Ocean County, N.J.

After that, she and her husband plan to do something they’ve talked about for more than 45 years: take a cross-country trip in their RV.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.


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